White Men Can't Jump
Time was, movie stars only made movies and television stars rarely left television. But with more people watching feature films on cassette than in theaters, it seems increasingly as if the big screen and the small are all the same medium—which is making it all the easier for TV faves to make the leap to movie stardom. And no prime-time players have been better prepared to cross over than the uncommonly talented crew from Cheers.
Virtually the entire Cheers ensemble has now moonlighted in movies, often with blockbuster results: Ted Danson in Three Men and a Baby (1987), Kirstie Alley in Look Who’s Talking (1989), Shelley Long in Outrageous Fortune (1987). While not exactly angling for lead parts, even barflies George Wendt and Bebe Neuwirth are beginning to land supporting roles, in Guilty by Suspicion (1991) and Green Card (1990), respectively. Though Woody Harrelson is a relative latecomer to the Cheers cast, he has more than made up for lost screen time with his choice of material.
Written and directed by Ron Shelton, Harrelson’s first big feature, White Men Can’t Jump is the most satisfying Hollywood comedy since Shelton’s Bull Durham. Like Bull Durham, it’s a valentine to its sport. Even with the court action cropped and cramped for video, White Men Can’t Jump is still the best basketball movie ever made. And yet, as with Bull Durham, you don’t have to be a sports fan to love it. The movie is a smart Shelton riff on the typically male struggle between becoming a full-fledged grown-up and staying forever young; it’s as much about these hustlers’ dreams as it is their schemes.
Stars Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson are a dream team. Talking a good game and playing an even better one, they con fellow blacktop athletes into pickup contests for fast money, then take turns trying to outtalk, outplay-and outcon-each other. Like their characters, Billy and Sidney, respectively, the actors score with a deft blend of two-man teamwork and scene-stealing solo moves. On and off the court, they’re a winning combination.
The movie also gives us two more Shelton women who stand by their men—but still have lives of their own. Rosie Perez plays Billy’s girlfriend, Gloria, who believes she’s destined to win big on Jeopardy!; Tyra Ferrell is Sidney’s wife, Rhonda, who longs to live in a better neighborhood and is tiring of her husband’s quick-fix financial scams. In most male buddy comedies, the females are strictly second-string; here, they’re major players.
But the big winner is Harrelson, not just because he has joined Snipes as a rising star, but because he has done so playing something other than his TV persona. While his Cheers costars have often ended up as variations of their TV characters (Danson’s vain ladies’ man, Long’s flighty pseudo-intellectual), Harrelson gives his image a whole new spin. The only time he plays dumb as Billy is when it’s part of a hustle. Once Billy reveals how streetwise he really is, Harrelson seems to shed his Woody skin before our eyes; it’s a breakthrough performance.
Harrelson will surely make some wrong career moves along the way—like Danson’s A Fine Mess (1986), Alley’s Sibling Rivalry (1990), and every one of Long’s movies since Outrageous Fortune. But that might be more a comment on the current state of Hollywood comedy than on the actors’ abilities. Still, off his showing in White Men Can’t Jump, Harrelson seems likely to start seeing the best scripts before his Cheers costars do. Now all he needs—all the whole gang needs—is for the Cheers writers to branch out and start scripting movies. Maybe then we won’t have to wait so long between satisfying Hollywood comedies.